Insects interacting with plants play mighty roles on Earth for millennia
Some systems that sustain life on Earth have been operating for a really long time. Cycles of oxygen come to mind. Cycles of water come to mind. And cycles of minerals come to mind. But what about the green world of plants around us? And what of their friends? Those friends are the insects.
Insects and plants have been interacting on Earth for hundreds of millions of years. They interact in a complex array of relationships. Insects are physically small. But their ecological roles on the planet are mighty. They provide structure to the ecosystems we rely on.
Take a walk outside. It is hard to overlook insects in action. Rifle through a plant. You'll find a collection of insects. They are looking for food. Some are making holes. Some are scraping off plant tissues. And some are skeletonizing leaves. Others are piercing plants. Some are sucking up sap. And others are making squiggly paths as they mine leaf tissues. Plants may also serve as nurseries for insect larvae. Adult insects leave distinctive scars where they have inserted their eggs. Some insects even co-opt developmental machinery of plants. They make tumor-like galls. These provide protection and food for the larvae.
Many insects are also pollinators. They enable plant reproduction. They do this while scoring a food reward. Pollination is the foundation of natural ecosystems. It is also the foundation of our food supply. We would be hard-pressed to feed our growing human populations on Earth without insects. On the other hand, defending crops from insect herbivores is also part of agriculture. Insects have evolved a huge variety of adaptations for exploiting plant organs and tissues.
Paleobiologists study fossils for evidence of insect-plant interactions. They have traced damage marks on 385-million-year-old leaves to insect feeding. The fossil evidence points to pollination also having a long history on Earth. It shows up an estimated 125-170 million years ago. Compare those ancient relationships to our mere 200,000 years of human history on Earth.
Smithsonian Paleobiologist Dr. Conrad Labandeira is a scientist. Like other scientists, he continues to gather evidence. He wants to understand the deep history of plant and insect relationships on Earth. Learn more about Conrad’s research in the "Smithsonian Science How" webcast. It is on Thursday, Feb 8, 2018. It airs at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. EST. It is on the Q?rius website. It is called Fossil Forensics: Plant and Insect Relationships. Conrad will take you on a journey through time. He will answer your questions live. You can also get teaching resources to use with the webcast.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why are insects important to our planet?
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